“Irony-Free” Leadership Zones: N. Korean dictator “sexiest man alive?”

The Onion‘s satirical announcement became real news in Mainland China this week.

The online version of the People’s Daily picked up the Onion’s annual insult to the world’s most notorious dictators (and to People Magazine’s annual fluff feature), celebrating Kim Jong-Un’s international sex appeal with a 55 page photo spread. 

Wow. 55 pages! I wish I’d seen it — they pulled the feature earlier today when they found out they’d  punk’d themselves. According to the LA Times, the North Korean leader has celebrity value for the People’s Daily. ” Even without help from the Onion, People’s Daily frequently runs features about North Korea so fawning as to suggest parody. (“The erection of the statues of the illustrious commanders at the university marks a great event reflecting the steadfast will of all the service personnel of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) to glorify the immortal revolutionary exploits performed by the Generalissimos for all ages,” was a line in a recent People’s Daily article about the unveiling of statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.) Other recent features in People’s Daily website include “Fashion in DPRK” and “DPRK’s top leader enjoys concert,’’ using the formal acronym for North Korea.

One of the pictures in the photo spread, now taken off the website.

Background: North Korea

Human Rights Watch reports that North Korea “systematically violates the basic rights of its population. Although it has signed four key international human rights treaties and includes rights protections in its constitution, it allows no organized political opposition, free media, functioning civil society, or religious freedom. Arbitrary arrest, detention, lack of due process, and torture and ill treatment of detainees remain serious and endemic problems. North Korea also practices collective punishment for various anti-state offenses, for which it enslaves hundreds of thousands of citizens in prison camps, including children. The government periodically publicly executes citizens for stealing state property, hoarding food and other “anti-socialist” crimes.”

Misunderstandings, bad leadership and the smugness of the free

The news that a communist China newspaper celebrated Kim Jong-un’s ersatz sexiness amused many bloggers, journalists, pundits and readers, including me. I’m a longtime fan of the Onion, and more than that, a believer in the power of satire to support political change and challenge the status quo.

But this news makes me kind of sad, because it doesn’t point to anything except the power of the internet to spread misinformation and snickers about misinterpreted misinformation. While surfing the various responses, I found no mention of the horrors daily unfolding in North Korea. It’s as if this kind of gaffe makes “the free world” feel smug, maybe even comforted, by the foolishness of the “unfree.” It cements the us and them that separates the privileged us from effective activism to help others.

In fact, it’s hard to talk about leadership and regime change North Korea, because so much is invisible there, and what is visible is pretty misleading.

Here’s the New York Times, October 15 of this year: “What has become clear is that Mr. Kim is intent on a new leadership style — allowing more women to dress in Western wear that had long been branded a capitalist affectation, and breaking with tradition by publicly admitting a failure when a much ballyhooed rocket launch went awry in April 2012. What is less clear is whether he will allow more than the baby steps toward economic reform that he is reported to have taken.”

The photo run with the Onion’s announcement.

Hmmm. Leadership as dress code changes? Maybe the Onion’s mocking phrases celebrating “impeccable fashion sense, chic short hairstyle, and, of course, that famous smile” reflect what the west can see, and what the pop culture media spins as important.

From the same summary: “North Koreans said their lives have gotten harder, despite Mr. Kim’s tantalizing pronouncements about increasing people’s livelihoods that have fueled outside hopes that the nuclear-armed nation might ease its economically ruinous obsession with military hardware and dabble in Chinese-style market reforms.”

Ah! In fact, we’re hoping for incompetent leadership to destabilize the regime. The Economist calls North Korea “Disneyland for dictators,” and warns that the regime change seems to have a Western flavor but so far no real indication that anything will shift: “Jocular in public, though no great orator, Kim Jong-un e seems to have no qualms about letting North Koreans gossip about the mystery woman at his side. He is playing on his youth, declaring in a big speech to the party’s gilded children (millions of less favoured youngsters are kept under heel from birth) that they are “treasures more precious than 100m tonnes of gold and silver”. His father barely uttered a sentence in public, let alone released details of his private life.

“For now, though, it is purely cosmetic. There are no signs that conditions are improving for North Korea’s repressed citizens. State media still indulges in horrific invective against the South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, suggesting that, despite its discovery of American schmaltz, the regime’s attitude remains dangerously paranoid. John Delury, of Yonsei University in Seoul, believes Mr Kim may “shift the priority a bit from security to prosperity,” noting that rapidly increasing trade with China and the illicit import of foreign films are familiarising North Koreans with Western concepts such as higher hemlines. Alternatively, though, they may just be sugar-coated ways of distracting a nation starved of everything else.”

The same can be said of “accidental” satire, like the recent cultural misreading that brought the Onion’s antics into China’s state controlled press.

Political satire, well aimed and sharply logical (see my article about Joss Whedon’s zombie parody of Romney) is very effective at galvanizing a political response and criticizing specific policies or circumstances. The only thing revealed here to Western readers who dig deep enough under the internet buzz to see it, is that the North Korean dictator is a celebrity in Mainland Chinese propoganda.

This event warrants a smirk and a giggle, certainly, but doesn’t take us any further. In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of North Koreans continue to suffer under authoritarian leadership whose deepest effects remain invisible to the world.

One comment

  1. […] vital diplomatic practical skills even to be an effective figurehead (See my earlier post about the comical over-inflation of his power and gifts, which can’t help matters […]


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